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Saving Meigs will call for a game of hardball

June 25, 2001
By Robert Reed, Editor, Crain's Chicago Business

It's time to play "Let's Break a Deal."

This tournament pits Mayor Richard M. Daley vs. those interested in saving Meigs Field, the little airport on Northerly Island that could be turned into a lakeside park by early 2002. That's the shutdown date the city and state negotiated after Mr. Daley went sour on the airfield a few years ago.

What's the objective of the "Break a Deal" game? If the challengers win, Mayor Daley has to back off from closing Meigs, and the airstrip goes on to new heights of glory.

But participants should beware, because this is a clash that could prove tougher than any World Wrestling Federation match.

Indeed, Meigs advocates should ask themselves, "Are we ready to rumble?" If they are, then these champions of the lakefront landing strip who come across more as dreamy aviation enthusiasts than bare-knuckled business and political brawlers have a legitimate shot at winning.

It might come as a surprise to many that Meigs' fate is still in play. For the past couple of years, the widespread perception has been that Mr. Daley will get his way and the airport will die.

Now, however, the "Save Meigs Field" movement is getting new life, courtesy of Gov. George Ryan, who's wants the mayor to reconsider, and will lobby him to do just that. Mr. Ryan is listening to CEO types, who want to keep flying their private jets into the airport, which is only a short limo or taxi ride away from downtown's temples of commerce.

With Gov. Ryan emerging from the wings, Meigs backers have an ideal opportunity to mobilize their influential base of business leaders, both in-state and beyond. In doing so, however, organizations like the Friends of Meigs Field, the Meigs Action Coalition and sympathetic trade groups must drop the gloves and go after the mayor's anti-Meigs position more aggressively than ever before.

That means mobilizing the hundreds of company leaders who use the airport to do millions of dollars worth of business every year in Chicago. That means pushing those who have yet to voice their support into writing, lobbying and pressing the mayor to change course. That means prodding those business allies already on the record as being pro-Meigs to regroup and take their case directly to City Hall. That means urging those who run conventions at the expanding McCormick Place, which is near Meigs, to give His Honor a call. That means getting the CEOs of companies whose customers fly into Meigs to speak up.

And that also means asking local medical centers, which often use the facility for transporting the seriously ill or for flying in donated organs for transplant operations, to forcefully make their case.

Meigs backers can present a compelling argument.

At a time when airports are clogged like bad arteries, the mayor wants to bulldoze a viable, albeit small, general aviation landing strip and replace it with a park that will be used maybe six months of the year. It doesn't make sense.

Losing Meigs will add to local airport congestion. Estimates are that 60% of corporate jet traffic that flies into Meigs will be forced to relocate to Midway Airport, which is also showing signs of strain, or to an already jam-packed O'Hare.

There is a perception that Meigs is little more than a haven for fat cats showing off their private jets. That's hardly the case. Industry data show that nearly 80% of general aviation users are mid-level managers. They're the engineers, computer technicians, marketing personnel and other staffers flying here to connect with local suppliers, vendors or company divisions.

To be sure, saving Meigs is a long shot, and the airport's partisans already have two strikes against them: The mayor likes parks, and he's not fond of changing his mind once a decision is made.

Even so, there's still time left in this game. Pressing the business community to play political hardball could end up saving the little lakefront airport that shouldn't go away.

Robert Reed can be heard daily on WBBM-AM's "Noon Business Hour" and can be contacted at

2001 by Crain Communications Inc.

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